News analysis

PAS risks narrowing influence after ditching rebranding effort

Malaysia's main Islamic party risks deflating its influence to just the Malay heartland once more as its leaders have ditched an effort to rebrand its hard-line Islamist image at its just-concluded annual meeting last Friday, analysts say.

The plus for Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) at this year's "muktamar" - as its yearly congress is called - is that the meeting had zero infighting compared with the last few years because its moderate leaders have left the party.

The calm assembly has given the party optimism that a new strategy of cooperating with others - even former archenemy Umno - to achieve Islamic theocratic ideals will eventually bear fruit.

"We are trying to gain many friends, not more enemies. So we look for points of similarities and forgive the differences," PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang said in his closing speech.

To hardcore party supporters, the exodus of the hated "Anwarinas" - members who back the multicultural outlook of opposition chief Anwar Ibrahim - is good news. The party rebels include a former deputy president and two former vice-presidents, who left after losing badly in the PAS internal elections last year.

"There were no discordant voices heard in the muktamar (this year), though these same voices were still shouting on Facebook and in the media," PAS ulama wing deputy chief of communications Nik Muhammad Nasri Nik Malik wrote in the party's online organ, HarakahDaily.

Mr Hadi speaking at the annual PAS meeting last Friday. He said the party is "trying to gain many friends, not more enemies".
Mr Hadi speaking at the annual PAS meeting last Friday. He said the party is "trying to gain many friends, not more enemies". PHOTO: FOTOBERNAMA

PAS had tried to capture non-Muslim Chinese and Indian hearts with the "Welfare State" and "PAS for All" slogans. But now it is back to making familiar sounds about pushing through the Islamic penal code called hudud, a topic scorned by non-Muslim voters.

"They don't mind being confined to their stronghold in the northern Malay belt, just so long as they can apply hudud somehow. With Islamisation on the rise, time is on their side," S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow Oh Ei Sun told The Straits Times.

PAS started to woo non-Muslim voters earnestly by going out of the Malay belt states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis just before the 2008 General Election. That was when Anwar convinced the Islamic party's spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat to work closer with the secular opposition - the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

The trio of Malaysia's biggest opposition parties avoided three-cornered fights in most constituencies. They formed the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance soon after the opposition won a record five of Malaysia's 13 states in the 2008 polls.

In the 2013 General Election, the opposition remained united and won the popular vote against the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN).

But with Anwar back in jail and the death of Datuk Nik Aziz last year, the two main glues for PAS to remain with the other opposition parties are gone.

PR is defunct. The moderates who left PAS have formed Amanah and then teamed up with DAP and PKR to form a new alliance called Pakatan Harapan.

PAS would have none of this, and that is bad news for the opposition and for Malaysians who are keen to have a united opposition to pressure scandal-hit Umno.

At the June 18 by-elections in Selangor and Perak, PAS, Amanah and incumbent Umno are all putting up candidates, with Umno expected to retain the two seats against a split opposition.

But PAS believes it can turn the tide in the long term, especially with the Malay-Muslim majority.

"We need to explain Islamic politics. Voters see (Datuk Seri) Hadi shaking hands with Prime Minister Najib Razak, and they rethink why they hated PAS before. It has made us more approachable," a Sabah PAS Youth chief Adzmin Awang told The Straits Times.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2016, with the headline 'PAS risks narrowing influence after ditching rebranding effort'. Print Edition | Subscribe